A Bloody Fish Story

Medieval Woodcut

The price of fish is something nice — for fishmongers through the centuries, that is. And over the years, observers noted the rise and fall in the cost of fish according to the liturgical season and changes in the rules of the Roman Catholic Church.*

Because of the price of fish, or even the mere existence of fish in an otherwise protein-scarce environment, people utilized every bit of the fish in the same way they used the carcasses of pigs — even the blood became part of dishes, many served with blood-thickened sauces.

The Forme of Cury, a cookbook compiled in 1390 by the cooks of English king Richard II and put in book form by Samuel Pegge in 1791, is now available as page images as well as transcribed. The manuscript contains several recipes specifically associated with the Lenten fast.

For to make noumbles in Lent. — 114.

Take the blode of pykes other (or) of conger, and nyme (take) the panches (paunches) of pykes, of congers, and of grete cod lyng and boile hem tendre and mynce hem smale, and do hem in that blode. Take crustes of white brede, and styne (strain) it thrugh a cloth. Thenne take oynons iboiled and mynced. Take peper, and safron, wyne, vynegar aysell other alegar, and do thereto, and serve it forth.

For to make chawdon [a sauce) for Lent. — 115.

Page Images, The Forme of Cury, “For to Make Noumbles in Lent”

Take blode of gurnardes and congar, and the panches of gurnardes, and boile hem tendre, and mynce hem smale; and make a lyre of white crustes, and oynons ymynced, bray it in a mortar, and thanne boile it togyder til it be stondyng (thick). Thenne take vynegar, other (or) aysell, and safron, and put it thereto, and serve it forth.

Now one thing that should be clear here is that “chawdon,” “chaudron,” or “chawdron,” a black sauce made with blood and browned breadcrumbs, came to table with roasted swan, definitely not a dish for the poor. But what’s interesting, to me anyway, is the use of breadcrumbs and blood to thicken the sauce, the attempt to make a fish into a bird, to speak.

These faux techniques, to trompe l’oeil and the tongue both, testify both to the ingenuity of the cooks and the need to make use of everything that could be eaten.


Dry old bread.

Things we might casually pitch into the garbage without a second thought today.

*An example is “The Pope and the Price of Fish,” by Frederick W. Bell (1968).

More to come …

© 2010 C. Bertelsen